It is very unfortunate that we rarely see children sharing their willingness towards taking up teaching as a profession, nowadays. Instead, they are plumping for new-age career options, for various reasons.
This aversion to teaching stems from how our community as a whole regards the profession. For many people, in fact, teaching is a career they were pushed into because their Plan A did not work out.
Our society and the government do not give teachers the dignity they deserve. The impact that teachers have on their students' lives is immense and the same is evident when one looks at the statistics. As reported by We Are Teachers, an online media platform for educators- close to 80% of students say that their teachers encouraged them to become what they are today. Additionally, the 2018 Global Teacher Status Index, a worldwide survey on the status of the teaching profession, shows a clear positive relationship between teacher status/respect and student achievement as calculated by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores.
Given the fact that teachers have a massive contribution towards students' life, it is hard to believe that they are not given the respect and consideration that their role commands.
In the Indian education system, there is great disenchantment among teachers towards the government and the heads of schools. I perceived this first-hand when I visited a few government schools in the North, Central and South-East districts of Delhi as a part of the Changemakers in Education (CMIE) Fellowship with the Government of Delhi. While many teachers were intrinsically motivated to teach, a common belief was that the government's actions- although having good intentions, was not the most encouraging. The majority believed that the government hardly understood them or their concerns which in turn demotivated them. It was commonplace to hear teachers say "humari toh koi sunta nahi" (nobody listens to us).
This problem further exacerbated during the pandemic. Teaching classes in the first half of the day, and responding to student queries on WhatsApp till late at night had become the new norm for teachers. The pressure from leadership for the completion of the syllabus, utter lack of support from students' parents, and ever-increasing administrative work had crippled their teaching capability and had adversely impacted their mental health. Amid all this, it was plausible that their commitment to students faded unless they felt cared for, by the government and the rest.
At this juncture, it is essential to understand that the dignity with which teachers are treated does not only impact teachers' performance, but also the learning levels of students they teach. This is self-explanatory – unless one has a sense of belonging and a feeling of being cared for, optimal efforts cannot be obtained.
Further, many professors felt that the school leadership's actions expose a huge gap between education practices and the ground reality in classrooms. Policy solutions based on recommendations from just the top-level officials do not reflect the true needs and as a result, address the existing problems only partially at best. They feel that if this chasm between the actual needs and the solutions has to be addressed, teachers who are at the last mile of education delivery should be the captains in charge.
What has been done so far?
It is implicit that this disenchantment towards the school leadership and government needs to be revisited and reversed. By acknowledging the grievances of the teachers and taking action through policy and subtle nudges, much can be done to restore the long lost Samman (respect) for our gurus.
In this regard, some of the best practice scenarios emerge from the global west. OECD countries have taken giant leaps in making teaching an attractive career choice. They have achieved this by giving teachers respect and autonomy as professionals — encouraging them to become flag-bearers of educational reform. There's a lot that we can learn from our Finnish counterparts. In Finland, the teaching profession is reserved only for the most qualified - "Every year, we have about 8,000 applicants who want to be teachers, and only 10% are accepted", Counsellor of Education from Finland's Ministry of Education shared in a discussion with officials from Kantar Public Education Policy Group. They are paid modestly and have a lot of freedom, uninterrupted by the involvement of politicians and even principals, in the classrooms. They can plan and decide how to implement the course in a way that suits their teaching method. Teachers are respected professionals in the Finnish education system.
Delhi's education reforms have not been very behind either. The government has been trying to address the needs of its school teachers with small yet meaningful steps. Photographs of the high performing teachers were put in Delhi metro trains and music bands like the Indian Ocean and other celebrities were invited at award functions for the SMC (School Management Committee) members where high performing teachers were rewarded. Other bigger reforms include an increase in salaries of the guest teachers, incorporation of teacher export visits to IIMs and universities abroad and inclusion of Mentor Teachers in key decision-making processes. These steps have been immensely critical in the path towards restoring teachers' faith in the education system and the government.
In 2020, the Delhi education model made history when the government schools in Delhi achieved a pass percentage of 98% in the Class XII CBSE examination. One cannot deny the indispensable contribution that teachers had in bringing this achievement to life. The pedestal at which the teachers are placed has improved exponentially in the past decade. The focused group discussions that we- as a team from the CMIE Fellowship- conducted in December 2020, with the Mentor Teachers from Delhi Government schools also pointed towards the same fact. The majority of the respondent teachers shared that they now look forward to coming to school and that the degree of collaboration between the teachers and students is much higher. "Earlier I used to shy away from sharing what I do, but now I feel proud of being called a 'government school teacher' from Delhi", a Delhi government Mentor Teacher shared in one of the in-depth interviews.
What needs to be done still?
As we head towards a new academic year, these efforts towards empowering teachers need to be lauded and encouraged even more. At the same time, there remain some issues that need to be addressed.
Teachers are an essential part of the cohesive system of education. For a teacher to be able to become sensitive towards the needs of the students, their class performance and their future, we have to be equally mindful about the teacher's needs - her dignity and her desire to feel empowered by the system. For teachers, this would mean getting the due autonomy in classrooms, having access to fair wages, and receiving continuous support from the government.
Empowerment needs to begin from the classrooms themselves; let the teachers lead. Schools should allow them to choose their teaching methods and approaches for how they want to disseminate the national curricula amongst the students. Empowerment also means treating teachers strictly as a medium for education delivery and not burdening them with non-academic duties. At least not so much so that their actual profession takes a back seat. As one teacher very succinctly pointed out, "We come here to teach the students, that's our work. Non-teaching activities mein saara wakt nikal jaaye toh bahot stress hota hai."
Teaching as a profession needs to become attractive from the financial perspective as well. According to Payscale, the average salary of a school teacher in India today is Rs. 3,00,732 per annum. In comparison, after adjusting for purchasing power parity, school teachers in China make an average of INR 13,06,086 (¥ 2,57,000) per annum and a public school teacher from the United States makes an average of INR 13,17,936 ($ 61,730) per annum. In order to overcome this astounding disparity and continue to retain talent in the teaching profession, schools and governments need to revise pay scales and pay their teachers fairly.
To motivate teachers and to cherish an inclusive environment, the decision-making process should include teachers at its very core. This will lead to a greater feeling of agency and improve the overall perception of a teacher. Trust in the system is essential and losing this very trust can have a long-run impact on our nation's future. It is high time we realize that our teachers deserve an advancement – both pecuniary and non-pecuniary and failure to do so will leave us staring at a rather unpleasant picture.